A sea breeze swept laughter and chatter to shore as 15 veterans paddled into the surf of Avila Beach. One of the veterans wobbled to his knees on his surfboard, took a moment to balance and then rode a wave to shore with a smile on his face, greeted by a chorus of cheers from volunteers on land.
Operation Surf welcomed 15 new members and 15 alumni to their week-long surf program’s opening ceremony at Avila Beach Sept. 30. The program teaches veterans how to surf and works to support them through their physical and mental injuries, according to program founder and director Van Curaza.
“They’re surrounded by people [who] care,” Curaza said. “If you are in a place where you feel like you’re all alone and no one cares, well, if you come to us, you don’t go home feeling that way.”
Each new participant is paired with a surf instructor, and they surf in small teams to create a consistent environment for the week, Director of Communications MacKenzie Rana said.
In addition to teaching participants how to surf, the program focuses on building a supportive community. Surf instructors, program participants and alumni all eat and surf together, and stay at the same hotel, so everyone has the chance to get to know each other, Curaza said.
“I used to seclude myself from people,” Navy Seabee veteran Leonardo Yui, an alumnus of the program, said. “I didn’t have a social life, and surfing just brought that connection with other people. I got connected with other veterans [who] are going through the same things that I’m going through.”
In addition to finding a community through the program, Yui said he found surfing to be therapeutic.
“Whenever I’m just about to catch that wave, I have to be in the right mindset — I have to stay calm,” Yui said. “I know that I cannot control the ocean, so what I have to do is release myself. Once I’m able to catch that wave, it just gives me joy.”
Ocean therapy causes a 36 percent decrease in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and a 47 percent decrease in depression, making it an effective outlet for veterans, according to a study done on Operation Surf by Russell Crawford.
Rana found Operation Surf through her husband, a veteran with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Before he started surfing, he experienced memory loss, flashbacks, anxiety, night terrors and night sweats, she said.
“After he started surfing, I noticed his pillow wasn’t wet anymore,” Rana said. “It’s just a simple thing that most people wouldn’t really think was any different, but it was a big change.”
After surfing with the program, Rana’s husband experienced less anxiety, less depression and less isolation, she said.
“Van has said a few times, ‘When you’re a better you, you’re a better husband and you’re a better father,’ so it has to start from the center,” Rana said. “Having my husband focus on working on himself first, so he doesn’t pour from an empty cup, that has a ripple effect, so I worry a little less.”
Operation Surf has served more than 600 veterans in the past 10 years and hopes to expand and create programs for military spouses and families as well, according to Operation Surf Executive Director Amanda Curaza.
“My youngest son, he’s seven years old,” Yui said. “In the mornings every now and then when I go wake him up for school, sometimes as he’s waking up, he has this smile — it’s very pure the way he smiles. He’s happy. That’s what surfing brings to me, the smile of a seven year old.”